Most Pakistanis feel uneasy coming to terms with the reality that is Bangladesh. They hide themselves behind a shoddy narrative of 1971, and neatly categorise the whole thing as a ‘conspiracy’. It might well have been one. But who conspired against whom and when? What were the Bengalis up to? And how did they reach breaking point?
By Towheed Feroze
Via Dhaka Tribune
It is a well-known fact, or I can assume a lot of people are aware, that in 1971, the US government was not in favor of a liberated Bangladesh. At least, the White House was actively against the idea of a dismembered Pakistan. Declassified records, as mentioned in several books related to the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh, state unequivocally that the Nixon administration was unwilling to see dents in their relations with the West Pakistan junta. Pakistan was a key player at that time in improving US relations with China.
Therefore, even after heart-wrenching telegrams were sent by US diplomat Archer Blood from Dhaka about the atrocities committed, the reaction in Washington was diplomatic silence. Blood later on was admonished and, reportedly, his career path made difficult for his candid appraisal of the situation on the ground. Whatever the case, within the USA, the opinion was split as further declassified papers, mentioned in BZ Khosru’s book, clearly state that a large number of common Americans plus many serving lawmakers opposed the stance of the White House and also resorted to strategic filibustering to delay shipments of weapons to the invading army.
Yet, even after so many years, if a political analyst is asked to comment on the role of the USA and then the USSR during the 1971 war, the former won’t be painted favorably. If you are the devil, then you are vile out and out … no chance for the little virtues to be noticed. After all, history only remembers decisions made at the top. The fact that many Germans within the German defense system wanted to depose Hitler and end a war begun on lunatic whim is usually brushed aside when WW2 is deconstructed. Anything to do with Hitler’s military might is regarded with suspicion, though efforts were made right within the German military by Claus von Stauffenberg to kill the dictator in what is known as the “20 July plot.” Come to the Vietnam War, where the US role is still enveloped in infamy. At the height of the Cold War, poking a nose, and then directly getting in warfare, in Vietnam turned the US into the new imperial juggernaut.
Within the US, millions of people, imbued by the 60s philosophy of peace and spiritual emancipation, protested, though this hardly did anything to improve the US image globally. In the then East-Pakistan, a wave of socialist ideals spurred by Fidel Castro’s defiance of the US and relentless struggle of the Vietnamese people had transformed a generation. The 1971 American aloofness only cemented an anti-Western feeling. To be precise, for about a decade after liberation, young men wanting to enter politics had to embrace socialist values and reject what they termed “Markin shamrajjobad” (US imperialism).
However, as we step into the 43rd year of independence, maybe history should be interpreted not by acts of the government only but also by humanitarian deeds of the general people. A recent news of four US Hercules planes helping India transport floods of refugees from the then East Pakistan after the March 26 crackdown, opens up a new hitherto unknown dimension to the compassionate American involvement in the war. Of course, if we look at the overall picture, Nixon’s lethargy in acknowledging genocide in Bangladesh and the subsequent sending of the seventh fleet will always overshadow all the other acts that were in favor of Bangladesh. Even then, sometimes good deeds need to be recognized.
One cannot forget the role of the American missionaries based in Dhaka, Narinda, and Kaliganj who came to the help of the common people during those turbulent times of hopelessness. Nor can we forget Senator Edward Kennedy who stood at Congress supporting the cause for Bangladesh. As we approach Victory Day, the role of the USSR during the war cannot and should not be sidelined either. They indirectly hinted that if any superpower entered on the side of Pakistan, the USSR would act, thus ruling out the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh from turning into a major cause for global conflict. Later, it was the Soviets who cleared the ports of Bangladesh of thousands of planted mines and scuttled ships. Of course, to take a wide-angle perspective, the 70s was the period of high communism-capitalism tensions. Any state-to-state episode of warfare was inevitably caught in the vortex of the ideological divide.
One may ask why these nuances from another era matter so much. After all, the Cold War is over and there’s nothing called the Soviet Union. Well, for starters, accurate history is essential because unless the facts are known, new generations’ understanding of the political evolution of the sub-continent will be distorted. Just a concluding point, leading Arab countries from where millions of Bangladeshis now send back much needed foreign currency did not recognize Bangladesh’s struggle for independence on the rationale that the movement was aimed at dividing a Muslim country. Saudi Arabia gave formal recognition to Bangladesh in 1975-1976. Today, the Saudi government is a generous friend to Bangladesh. On the eve of Victory Day, let’s also try to understand a little bit of global politics and how they have evolved, with Bangladesh now firmly secured in the global map as a developing country.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper. Click here to go to the original.
Those in power had very strong ideas about what kind of state and government they wanted and demanded an electoral democracy only to legitimize their plans.
Poor democracy, however, lacked the capacity to oblige, despite all the sincere efforts made by its administrators. They wanted it to come back again and again to square-one, but democracy would insist on producing more numbers than required. It can’t be by coincidence that all of Pakistan’s traitor-designates or traitor-suspects were voted feverishly by the people.
Let me illustrate my point with an example:
Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan moved the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on March 7, 1949. The Assembly gathered in Karachi for its fifth session in its 20-months life. It was the first day of proceedings, starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon when Liaquat Ali Khan moved the resolution and made a lengthy speech. Immediately afterwards, opposition leaders – Hindus from East Bengal – rose and raised many objections apprehending that the Prime Minister wanted to bulldoze through the Resolution.
Quoting from the debate (official document):
Mr Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya: … We need time to study it, in consultation with our friends in East Bengal and for the sake of clarification. In fact when we left East Bengal this time we had no idea that such a Resolution was to be brought forward. There was no indication of it in the Agenda papers circulated. The budgetary session is almost at an end. The attendance in the House is very thin. Many members of my province – East Bengal – the Prime Minister (of Bengal) who might very well give us advice and guidance have left already. I presume they had no idea about it. There are some Members who did not attend the session at all. Surely they would have attended this meeting to take part in the discussion of such a Resolution if proper notice was given to them. Practically no notice was given to them. I, therefore, venture to suggest that the consideration of an important matter like this should be postponed and the Resolution be circulated for eliciting public opinion, till the next session or a special session may be convened for this purpose …
The Honourable Mr Liaqat Ali Khan: Sir, I am afraid there is a lot of contradiction in the arguments that have been advanced by the Honourable Members who have moved the motion for circulation of this Resolution. One of the chief arguments that has been advanced is that the House is very thin as most of the members have left and are not here and that they have not had enough time. As far as the Members of my Honourable friend’s party are concerned, every single of them is present in the House except one, who unfortunately is not well but is present in Karachi. So far as absence of Members is concerned I do not think that this is really very valid ground.
Mr Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya: There is no party of mine. I will deal with every one.
The Honourable Mr Liaqat Ali Khan: When I said ‘party’ I meant the non-Muslim Members of the House, because after all if anything can be said about this Resolution, if any objection can be raised, it can only be from the non-Muslim Members of this House, and I said just now, every one of them is present here …
So the prime minister did not consider it important for the Muslim members to be present in the Assembly at the time when he tabled the most important constitutional instrument of our history. In fact, he did not want them to forward any arguments, or, God forbid, make any objection. They were expected to nod their heads like brides do, from underneath the pile of exotic fabric that is piled up on them, when approached by the nikah khwan. No good Muslim should even think about opposing anything (including rule) being done in the name of Islam.
But good Muslims were in short supply in East Bengal as they kept demanding their rights. They wanted a constitution drafted by an assembly that is elected directly by the people. They wanted Pakistan to be a federation that treats all of its units with equality and justice. They wanted maximum provincial autonomy and effective safeguards against economic exploitation. They demanded respect for their language and culture.
All of this was not acceptable to what we have known as our ‘establishment’. But none of it could be suppressed because whenever democracy was allowed to prevail, people enthusiastically supported all of the Bengali demands. So, for around a quarter of a century, they tried to remodel democracy to suit them.
Nothing worked. By 1969, the civil-military establishment came to this depressing conclusion that they have to accept at least some of the Bengali demands.
So, general elections were announced. The principle of one-person-one-vote was accepted and people were to directly elect a Constituent Assembly (as opposed to the indirect elections introduced by General Ayub). East Bengal was given representation in the assembly proportionate to its population. So it had 162 of the 300 general seats and seven of 13 reserved for women. Polling was held in December 1970, and the results were as following:
Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman swept all the East Bengal seats except two. It definitely was the strongest possible verdict. It gave the Awami League agenda legitimacy of the highest order. Its leaders stood victorious and vindicated. They had passed the toughest of the tests with flying colors.
The elected Assembly was supposed to draft a constitution for the country within 120 days of its first meeting. General Yahya announced to hold the first meeting of the Assembly on March 3, 1971 and Awami League’s parliamentary committee announced the salient features of the constitution on February 27.
Since the party had simple majority in the House, there was no way it could be stopped from adopting the basic principles in its inaugural meeting. This would have effectively ended the rule of the Pakistani establishment over at least East Bengal, if not the entire country.
Yahya postponed the inaugural session and engaged in talks with Mujib and Bhutto, which remained fruitless. The General soon admitted his defeat on the democratic front and challenged Bengalis on the other.
Pakistan army declared war on East Pakistan on the night of March 25.
Explore: 1971 war: A textbook case
They left behind tremendous evidence of their hatred for free-thinking people, who were fearless while giving verdicts as well. Bengalis swear that these people were in millions. I will share only one with you here.
Within days, the military campaign changed into a full-scale civil war as Bengalis were ready for the worst. The assembly elected in December 1970 did not meet. Pakistan banned the Awami League and disqualified 76 of its 160 elected members for being traitors. So, the Awami League was cut down to size with its strength reduced from the commanding 167 to just 84 in the House of 313. That was at par with PPP, which had 81 in Punjab and Sindh. A divided and hung parliament is always in ‘the best national interest’.
The General was, however, living in a fool’s paradise. He amended his LFO in September 1971 to facilitate the Election Commission to organize by-elections on these ‘vacated seats’ of East Bengal. By that time, it was simply out of question for the government of Pakistan to perform in Bengal.
Religious parties saw an opportunity in this absurd and bleak situation. Six of them, led by Jamaat Islami, met and decided to field joint candidates on these seats knowing that their nominees will return uncontested as no one else considered the exercise legitimate. So on November 11, the EC found only one candidate each on 63 of these seats. All of them thus, were returned uncontested. This is how each party fared on these seats:
Jamaat Islami — 15
Pakistan Democratic Party — 12
Pakistan Muslim League — Council 7
Nizam-e-Islam — 6
Pakistan Muslim League — Convention 6
Pakistan Muslim League — Qayyum 5
Pakistan People’s Party — 5
PPP initially flayed the by-elections but later found the loot sale too tempting and joined the fray. 63 seats were decided and the EC announced to hold polls on the rest of the 15 from December 7 to 20, 1971. Curtains fell on this theatre of the absurd on December 3, as war broke out on the western front as well and the EC announced postponement of by-elections.
ZA Bhutto became the President and the Chief Martial Law Administrator on December 20, four days after the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dhaka. Bhutto nullified the by-elections on December 23, depriving Jamaat Islami of its biggest ever electoral triumph.
This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan oldest and most respected daily. Click here to go to the original.